By Emily Brandt
Editor’s Note: Emily Brandt has campaigned in 2019-2020 for Kim Williams for Congress and Bernie Sanders for president.
WHAT MOTIVATED COSTA TO RUN FOR CONGRESS IN 2020? “I want to bring a medical school to Fresno!” In view of the presence of Community Regional Medical Center’s joint residency program with the University of San Francisco, it appears that there is a medical school in Fresno. Costa though wants to bring a pre-med program to Fresno students through UC Merced. After eight terms in Congress, Costa is looking forward to retirement. This final effort is the main motivator for his 2020 run.
The original reason for Costa’s first run for political office has been obscured by 38 years in politics, 24 years spent in the California legislature and 14 years serving as a U.S. Congressmember, except inasmuch as he is quoted as saying, “I went to Congress for one reason: to fight for the people of our Valley. That’s what I’m doing.” Which people of the Valley he is fighting for has become a matter of discussion.
His grandparents came from the Portuguese Azores Islands during the massive wave of immigration to the U.S. from Eastern and Southern Europe in the late 1800s. Three of his four grandparents could not read or write. His own parents did not speak English until Costa was in first grade. Many years later, Costa’s mother went back to school to obtain her high school diploma at age 82. By 1922, his family had saved enough money by working in dairies throughout the Valley to establish their own dairy farm in Kearney Park in Southwest Fresno. Costa was born 30 years later, in 1952.
Jim Costa’s interest in political office must have begun early as he worked for Congressman B.F. Sisk while still in college pursuing a BA in Political Science at California State University, Fresno (CSUF). Later, he served U.S. Representatives John Krebs and Richard Lehman, both Democratic Congressmen. It appears that these years molded his political values in a lasting way. He first held office in the 30th District of the California State Assembly in 1978 when he was 26 years old. He was then the youngest person in state history to hold the position, which he did for 16 years.
Costa went on to be a member of the California Senate from 1995-2002. His lasting legacy from that tenure is the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act of 1995.* This pivotal legislation prevents local municipalities from enacting rent control on any properties. It was largely supported by Republicans, but some Democrats voted for it because of a clause that states “if serious health, safety, fire, or building code violations were discovered and not corrected for six months” rents cannot be raised. Attempts to reverse and/or repeal this act are ongoing, the last of which failed in 2018 over the fears that rent control lowers the production of low-income housing. In his 14 years in the U.S. Congress serving two districts, Costa has only written five bills.
MONEY IN POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS: Representative Costa’s congressional career began before public interest and scrutiny into money and campaigns had grown to the current high level. That focus is the direct product of Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign and his insistence on remaining distant from for-profit Political Action Committees (PAC), large influential donors such as Wall Street investment firms and banks, large pharmaceutical companies, the fossil fuel industry, private health care companies, and other interest groups that have a comfortable history of controlling the policy of Democratic candidates as much as Republican candidates running for office.
Costa’s record belies his stated commitments to climate change, improving air and water quality while taking large sums from Chevron and others who are even now polluting Kern County, the City of Richmond, and other areas of California. He appears not to be bothered by the frequent benefits to the privileged few resulting from his votes with Republicans rather than Democrats and his embrace of powerful interest groups. This is no great surprise to anyone since it has been the pattern of hundreds of members of Congress for decades.
Costa’s family owned a large corporate dairy farm called Costa Brothers Dairy and real estate interests worth several million dollars, which in no way reflects the experience of farmworkers. His family’s farming interests have turned to almonds rather than dairy over the years.
His stories of driving tractors on the farm ring hollow next to the accounts of those who have been paid below minimum wage for decades, suffering health problems from repetitive work injuries and pesticide exposure, at the least, whose stories of farm labor fail to be romanticized as do Costa’s. That isn’t to ignore the fact that Costa’s ancestors had a hard row to hoe as they accumulated sufficient wealth to establish a dairy of their own.
Costa’s family finances have made money matters easy–on paper–with $1 million in the bank from the corporate farm and $1 million from his family’s real estate business. Another view of Costa’s campaign donations can be found here. The differences between his finances and Williams are, not surprisingly, very large; Soria has pledged not to take any for-profit donations during the Primary, so for the moment, there’s not much there.
In the past, Soria’s Councilmember runs reveal big donations from developers and other interests. What her finances will look like should she win the Primary will be interesting to watch. Senator Elizabeth Warren has made the same pledge in her run for president. The amount of influence purchased can only reveal itself over some terms in office, as they have with Costa.
Author Update: 2/20/20 Costa has launched a series of attack ads against Soria that many have found offensive. One which attacks her relationship with Fresno developer Terence Frazier is here and a second which claims that she has praised Costa in that past is here.
ENVIRONMENTAL COMMITMENTS: Costa’s bill-sponsorship record is pretty small given his eight terms in office. With his record of sponsoring a meager five bills in nearly 16 years, Costa could not be described as an active legislator. To vote 43% of the time with Republicans is very high, especially in a district with a high number of Democratic voters, most of whom represent a high rate of poverty, low educational levels and who suffer from high rates of serious disease due to environmental pollution.
The League of Conservation Voters gives him a 69% rating–though to be fair–Costa did miss a number of key votes due to a medical procedure. In May of 2019, he did vote in favor of the U.S. staying in the Paris Climate Agreement but he would not support the Green New Deal.
Reversing Pres. Obama’s Offshore Moratorium Act; Bill H.1231; vote number 11-HV320 on May 12, 2011, Costa voted YES on Opening the Continental Shelf to Oil Drilling in 2012 at increasing levels through 2027. This bill reverses new efforts after the BP oil platform disaster at implementing stronger safety regulations to prevent spills. It also gives access to Exxon-Mobil and Shell Oil Company profits at the expense of the environment. Costa’s reliance on very large donations from Chevron among others, explains his willingness to vote against bills that restrict the access of Big Oil to new oil fields.
In the same year, Costa voted for the Energy Tax Prevention Act; Bill H.910; vote number 11-HV249 which would have prevented the EPA from regulating Greenhouse Gas Emissions. This is an especially damaging vote since his district, Congressional District 16 has the worst air quality in the State of California. Yet, he was re-elected following a whole series of votes that put his district’s residents at greater risk. Democrats have stood by him for decades and are only now beginning to show signs of rejecting this record of failing to serve their best interest.
Clearly, protecting farmworkers and others was not an issue on Costa’s mind when he voted for the ACRE Bill, Agricultural Certainty for Reporting Emissions, eliminating vital provisions in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) which protects the public through the clean up of industrial toxic waste dumps, oil spills, and chemical tank explosions and enforcement of environmental regulations on farmland.
Anything that would reduce or lessen these types of public health protection is a very bad idea and the City of Fresno and surrounding county is replete with such former Superfund sites. The Bill even makes it easier for farmers to dump pesticides into waterways regulated by the Clean Water Act.
Costa’s vote to fund the Keystone Pipeline is in direct contradiction to any commitments he has made to mitigate the impact of climate change. He was one of 28 Democrats in the House of Representatives who voted to build the pipeline. Overall, Costa’s votes on energy were rated at 33% by the Campaign for America’s Future using this scale:
- “0% – 30%: opposition of energy independence (approx. 206 members)
- 30% – 70%: mixed record on energy independence (approx. 77 members)
- 70%-100%: support for energy independence (approx. 183 members)” About the CAF (from their website, www.ourfuture.org)
It’s surprising that Costa’s last vote on the Paris Climate Accord was favorable since, in 2011, he rejected the idea of limiting CO2 Global Warming Pollution. It required utilities to supply an increasing percentage of their demand from a combination of energy efficiency savings and renewable energy (6% in 2012, 9.5% in 2014, 13% in 2016, 16.5% in 2018, and 20% in 2021). The Bill provides for:
- issuing, trading, and verifying renewable electricity credits; and
- prescribing standards to define and measure electricity savings from energy efficiency and energy conservation measures.
Adding an amendment such as this to the Clean Air Act (CAA) required a national strategy to address barriers to the commercial-scale deployment of carbon capture and sequestration. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R, VA-6), argued that other countries such as India and China were the worst carbon polluters and that they should carry the burden of responsibility for the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
However, that argument fails to admit that the U.S. has been a major polluter for longer than any other country and therefore bears that greater responsibility to address the problem and that the U.S. also has more resources than most other countries to do so immediately and effectively if the will is there.
MEDICARE FOR ALL/SINGLE PAYER/MEDICAL DEBT FORGIVENESS: When it comes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Costa only voted in favor of the legislation in March 2010, long after other Democrats had committed themselves. His vote was only secured after the Democratic Party promised to give Costa and Dennis Cardoza funding for a medical school in the Central Valley. Costa would only commit to healthcare reform as far as Soria has. Both believe that the ACA needs a few minor unspecified tweaks.
Clearly, Soria has every reason from her parent’s experience to support Medicare for All. Costa, however, does not seem to have any personal incentives to do so. Williams is committed to Medicare for All and to all of Bernie Sanders platforms as she demonstrated on her website kimwilliamsforcongress.com and further sealed in her open endorsement of Bernie Sanders.
WAR, IMMIGRATION, INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: The vote to continue selling arms to Saudi Arabia for its part in the Civil War in Yemen–a pursuit which human rights organizations estimate has killed tens of thousands of civilians–was one in which a small minority of five Democrats participated. Jim Costa was one of those votes.
His recent reactions to other war-related bills, including his vote to prevent the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which is opposed to human rights abuses by the government of Israel from participating on college campuses, mark him as inconsistent in his support of free speech as well as unsympathetic to Palestinians, including those seeking to resettle in the U.S. due to war. When it comes to those along the southern border with Mexico who seek asylum in the U.S., Costa voted in favor of sending more funds.
Two recent immigration bill stands out: The Blue Card Bill mentioned above: “Blue Card Bill” (Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Zoe Lofgrenoth . . . introduced the “Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2019,” S. 175/H.R. 64 which puts many restrictions on undocumented farmworkers that are quite burdensome and do not provide for circumstances in which workers become seriously ill or injured and can no longer perform physically demanding jobs and/or does not allow workers who might wish to pursue other employment that offers better pay and benefits to do so.
DISCRIMINATION: Personal experiences of discrimination are not readily found in any of the available biographies of Jim Costa, nor did it come up in discussion in the interview. The fact that his family struggled as tenant farmers for decades before owning property, however, and that when they did reach that goal it was in Southwest Fresno, speaks to the history of discrimination in the U.S. against non-Anglo European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In Fresno history, Chinatown and Southwest Fresno were the only districts in town where Armenians, Russians, Italians, Portuguese and other Eastern and Southern European immigrant groups were allowed to live. It was also a redlined district where African Americans, Latinos, Asians and people of Middle Eastern descent were forced to make their home.
As was common in other American cities in the late 1800s and early 1900s, these neighborhoods were referred to as the Red Light District, the only areas where prostitution and gambling were officially allowed. Even to this day, Chinatown and Southwest Fresno have been, at best, neglected by the city and, at worst, locations to dump toxic waste.
A 1936 original Fresno “residential security map” created by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation from the University of Maryland T-Races Project via Valley Public Radio.
There were always a few wealthy white farmers in the area, however, and by Costa’s lifetime, his family’s agricultural holdings were substantial. Also by the 1950s, discrimination against Portuguese Americans had lessened dramatically, as they and other Eastern and Southern European immigrants were primarily assimilated into white society.
Costa has spoken against racism in the past, such as in 2015 when Rep. John Lewis visited Fresno for a discussion after a public showing of the film Selma. He has also taken a stand recently condemning gun violence and racism, but as mentioned above, he has not defended the rights of Palestinians or Yemenis.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE/MASS INCARCERATION: After several failed attempts to pass similar legislation, in 1994, the Jones-Costa Bill passed. This bill, which Costa co-wrote and co-sponsored, was deemed one of the most punitive three-strikes bills across the country. It was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003 after causing a wholesale shift of the judicial temper to the right for a decade.
The law mandated sentences of 25 years to life for those who reoffended after already having three prior serious or violent felony convictions. Many cite it as a source of the massive overcrowding in prisons in California since 1994, especially of non-violent offenders.
FREE PUBLIC UNIVERSITY TUITION/STUDENT DEBT FORGIVENESS: College debt forgiveness does not seem to be a concern to Rep. Costa. He has devoted several pages of his website to the subject of financial aid, to help students navigate the process in high school and maintain solvency in college though there are no promises of amending the current plan in any way. The pages make access to existing loan information available to students in a step-by-step process.
ENDORSEMENTS: In his past campaigns, Costa has relied on endorsements from organized labor. It is unclear if he will actively seek out other wings of the Democratic Party or segments of the electorate for the support this time around. In June 2019, he endorsed U.S. Senator and former Attorney General of California, Kamala Harris, for president in the 2020 run. He was quoted as saying, “I have been working with Kamala Harris to protect immigrant children and fight pollution that harms the farmers of the Central Valley.”
Are voters comfortable with the flagrant contradictions between Rep. Costa’s actions in taking large sums of fossil fuel donations and voting to do everything to further Climate Change, while still talking with impunity about a “multipronged, commonsense approach” to Climate Change? Or will voters see through the decades of failure under Costa that would be destined to continue in the future if he stays in office? This is the question that will win or lose this election for Rep. Jim Costa.
(For an additional resource on Jim Costa, see CSUF student Jaspreet Sidhu’s interview with him on KBIF AM900 posted to YouTube)
* Editor’s Note 12/3/19: When originally published this stated that the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act was drafted and passed during Costa’s time in the U.S. Congress. It was written and enacted during his first term in the California Senate.